Canto 31: When Language Divides


By Lucy Bennett

Dante and Virgil approach the ninth and final circle of Hell, and Dante begins the journey by comparing Virgil’s tongue to the lance of Achilles. “The very tongue that stung me with rebuke so that I flushed with shame in either cheek, then brought the medicine to soothe the shame, As I have heard the lance of Peleus and of his son Achilles used to give wounds with the first touch, healing with the next.” [lines 1-6] In this moment, Dante discusses the power of the tongue and, by extension, the power of words. Virgil’s words have the power to either hurt or to heal.

As they move along, the two encounter giants, one of whom is Nimrod, a figure who enjoys a brief appearance in an early chapter in the book of Genesis (cf. 10:8-12). According to Christian tradition, Nimrod was the one responsible for the building of the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 11). According to the biblical narrative, it was at Babel that human language was divided up into different tongues and human beings thus became unintelligible to each other. The division among languages paralleled a division of mankind into various races and nations. Thus it is fitting that Nimrod is now in Hell, speaking a sort of gibberish that is completely unintelligible to anyone.

With the tongue, we can utter either mercy or disdain. The tongue is a vehicle with which we can either hurt or heal our brothers. The force of language has the capability of bring division among brothers. Caryll Houselander writes in her book, A Rocking-Horse Catholic, “…it is time that Christians answered Cain’s question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ by more than an affirmative: ‘I am more than that, I am my brother.’”

We are each members of the Body of Christ, a whole and unified Body. We must recognize our interdependence and, moreover, that each of us plays an important role in our neighbor’s salvation. We are not only called to help the poor, the afflicted, and the ostracized, but also our fellow men and women with whom we interact on a daily basis. Directly or indirectly, our words have the power to divide us or build us up.

In Father Antonio Spadaro’s 2013 interview with Pope Francis, the Holy Father said, “No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.”

How do our words affect our own web of relationships? We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must be reminded by Dante’s reflection on the effect of words by his guide Virgil. Words have the ability to hurt or to heal; let us pray we always remember to show mercy to one another by choosing to heal and encourage.

Ms. Lucy Bennett is a senior English major at the University of Dallas. She currently writes for the University of Dallas newspaper, The University News.

Posted in Inferno

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